New women's prison scrapped
Plans for a new women’s prison in Inverclyde have been scrapped, Cabinet Secretary for Justice Michael Matheson confirmed this morning.
The Scottish Prison Service had planned to shut Cornton Vale in favour of a new prison at Inverclyde that could manage a women’s population of 300, capable of expanding to 350 if necessary.
However, the proposal has faced fierce criticism from opposition parties and groups such as Howard League Scotland for appearing to run contrary to recommendations made by former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini in her landmark 2012 review on female offenders.
Matheson, who has been looking closely at the proposals since replacing Kenny MacAskill in November, said consultation with key partners will now take place with a view to investing in smaller regional and community-based custodial facilities across the country.
The proposals will also consider whether there is scope for a smaller facility within the prison estate for the low number of serious female offenders serving long-term prison sentences.
He said: “I’ve decided that the current plans for a prison for women in Inverclyde should not go ahead. It does not fit with my vision of how a modern and progressive country should be addressing female offending. We need to be bolder and take a more radical and ambitious approach in Scotland.
“When it comes to the justice system, we must be smarter with the choices we make and be more sophisticated in the way in which we deal with female offenders.”
In 2012, the Commission on Women Offenders, led by Angiolini, called for Cornton Vale to be replaced “with a smaller specialist prison for those women offenders serving a statutory defined long-term sentence and those who present a significant risk to the public”.
Women serving short sentences and those held on remand should be held in local prisons, she said.
Whilst Matheson said it was for the courts to decide who is handed a custodial sentence, he warned that “too many low level female offenders are sent to prison”, calling for a “new approach” to deal with this group.
“We know that women offenders are far less likely to be a danger to the public compared with men,” Matheson, who was visiting the 218 Centre in Glasgow, added.
“We also know that the families and children of female offenders are more likely to go off the rails and offend themselves if mothers are jailed miles away from home. This turns into a vicious circle, affecting future generations, and is doing nothing to address reoffending.
“I believe we should be investing in smaller regional and community-based custodial facilities across the country, rather than a large new prison for women.
“This approach would be more closely aligned with the vision set out by Dame Elish. It also demonstrates the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling inequalities.”
Inverclyde had been billed as a ‘dual function establishment’, operating as a regional facility for around 200 women from the west of Scotland and a national one for a further 100.
Grampian Prison, which was built to accommodate a mix of men, women, and young offenders, opened last year, while a purpose-built regional unit at Edinburgh had been planned to hold around 100 women.
No construction work has yet started on the unit at Saughton, the Scottish Prison Service confirmed.
Scottish Labour deputy leader Kezia Dugdale said the decision on Inverclyde represented a "welcome u-turn".
“We should be looking to do things differently in 21st century Scotland and this is a step in the right direction," she added.
“But it is only the start. We must use this opportunity to take a completely different approach to rehabilitating with women offenders. We need to move our system onto smaller community facilities with a better focus on prevention.
“We also need to make sure that the organisations which do great work continue to receive the support and the funding they need. There are numerous community organisations across Scotland that do incredible work with women offenders who simply don’t know if they will have the budget to go on beyond March. We can’t let that happen.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson, Alison McInnes MSP said the proposed replacement prison had been "too big and in the wrong place" whilst ignoring the recommendations of the Angiolini Commission.
“Choices made now will define how we deal with women offenders for decades to come," she said. "The new Justice Secretary has made the right decision in halting his predecessor’s misguided plans.
“What I do have misgivings about, having campaigned for years to close Cornton Vale, is that this will necessitate a delay in closing that sorry chapter of penal history. The prison is not fit for purpose, it impedes rehabilitation and isn’t capable of addressing the challenging and complex needs of many women prisoners.
“There is now a compelling case for the Scottish Government to end its fragmented approach to the implementation of the Angiolini recommendations. It needs to urgently pledge to fully fund and comprehensively support them. That is the only way we can ensure that Scotland’s justice system doesn’t continue to fail these women.”